After terror, it’s business as usual

Ivan Makridin

 

On Friday, I was with some of my colleagues — Russian journalists in exile — when I heard that gunmen had stormed a concert hall in Moscow and, shooting at point blank range, killed over 100 people. As the push notifications came through, some of us went straight to work, calling sources and trying to make sense of the horror. Others scrolled numbly through news feeds. Many, myself included, checked in with friends to make sure no one we knew was at the Crocus City Hall venue.

Disturbingly, none of us were particularly shocked. Forced to observe Russia from the outside, the news from our country is unremittingly grim. Many of us are in a state of perpetual despair. This might be an awful thing to say, but I expected to feel more — more anger? more sorrow? — after I heard about the attack. A few years ago, the emotional intensity of my response would have been different. On Friday, though, I just felt flat, dulled by the reality of the past two years — a reality in which hundreds of people die every day because of Putin’s war in Ukraine. You have to live your life somehow, right? Find a way to cope as you hear about near-constant carnage.

Apparently, Putin’s emotions have been dulled too. Less than a week after his re-election, after the worst mass murder on Russian soil in years, the Russian president was absent. And when he did finally appear, it was to make a canned address in which he claimed that the suspects had planned to escape into Ukraine. Presumably, under the noses of the ranks of Russian soldiers that Putin has amassed at the border.

Russia is in mourning, but for the president it’s business as usual, spinning tragedy into disinformation and conspiracy. The Kremlin failed to protect Russians from a terror attack. To avoid admitting to that failure, Putin pretends to be looking for deeper truths than those staring him in the face. The Islamic State group may have claimed responsibility for the attack. There may be a recent history of IS attacks in Russia. Russian security services may have recently claimed to have foiled several such plots. There may have been a warning from U.S. intelligence that an attack was forthcoming, a warning dismissed as “blackmail.” Still, Putin wants Russians to focus on chasing shadows.

Obligingly, the usual voices on state television and social media have continued to push Putin’s propaganda, flailing wildly in an effort to cast blame on Ukraine. Only the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, a close Putin ally, has gone off script. According to Lukashenko, the suspected perpetrators of the attack only changed course and headed towards the Ukrainian border once they realized they could not “enter Belarus by any means.”

It’s a depressing cycle. There is barely time to think of the dead, to comprehend the lives lost in Moscow, before we find ourselves once more in the thick of the “narrative,” once more being manipulated into accepting the Kremlin’s paranoid worldview.

GLOBAL NEWS

European courts are beginning to hold companies accountable for their “overly rosy” climate commitments. KLM was the latest to catch heat, with a court in the Netherlands ruling that the airline’s claims of practicing sustainable aviation were “misleading and therefore unlawful.” And earlier this month, a farmer backed by international organizations such as Greenpeace sued TotalEnergies in a Belgian court, accusing the oil and gas giant of, among other things, promoting climate disinformation for its own profit. Can European courts set a precedent, forcing companies around the world to accept responsibility for their impact and make genuine green transitions rather than simply greenwash their questionable records?

If only the standards applied to advertising in Europe applied to making political propaganda under the guise of commercial films. With general elections in India beginning in just three weeks, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ideological positions, already amplified by a pliant media, have been getting the Bollywood treatment. The latest box office hit is a biopic of Vinayak Savarkar, whose writings laid the foundation for Hindutva, the Hindu nationalism professed by Modi. A slew of similarly Modi-friendly films are scheduled to be released in the coming weeks. These films are hyper-nationalistic, not constrained by fact and suspicious of alternative views. Their aims are plainly political. Indian elections are governed under a “model code of conduct,” rules designed to prevent political parties from unfairly influencing and prejudicing voters. Sidestepping those rules via Bollywood is a disinformation tactic Modi’s opposition cannot counter.

The Modi government pairs disinformation campaigns with suppressing political opposition. It’s a pattern that plays out in other electoral autocracies, like Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Last week, for instance, poet Alexander Byvshev was sentenced to seven years in prison for a short poem he wrote on his Facebook page two years ago. He was charged with calling for terrorism because he made a reference in his poem to Claus von Stauffenberg, the German army officer who tried to assassinate Hitler in 1944. And on March 26, a Russian court extended the pre-trial detention of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich until at least June 30. Gershkovich has already been in jail for about a year. As my colleague Ivan Makridin writes below, Putin is so busy jailing poets and journalists and labeling them terrorists that he has failed to deal with real threats of terrorism.

WHAT WE’RE READING

  • “Concerns about Kremlin interference around Brussels are at fever-pitch” in the run-up to elections for the European parliament in June, reveals Investigate Europe. This comprehensive article shows the extent to which Russia seeks to spread its influence across Europe, a multi-pronged strategy ranging from dropping spies onto European campuses, running disinformation campaigns and seeking out friendly parliamentarians, including far-right politicians in Germany and Italy.
  • The United Arab Emirates is investing billions of dollars in becoming influential in the artificial intelligence industry, currently dominated by the U.S. and China. In this extensive report by Billy Perrigo, Emirati officials point to the country’s lack of democracy as a strength: “Yes, you need some checks and balances. But in many places it is overdone.”

The remainder of the newsletter was curated by Shougat Dasgupta.

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.

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